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Morris v. Macnab

Decided: November 4, 1957.

JANET MORRIS, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
JOHN MACNAB, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Heher, Wachenfeld, Burling, Jacobs and Francis. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Jacobs, J.

Jacobs

This is an appeal from a judgment for the plaintiff which was entered pursuant to a jury verdict. We certified the appeal on our own motion while it was pending in the Appellate Division.

In 1953 the defendant John MacNab, a married man, became casually acquainted with the plaintiff Janet Morris, a widow. They traveled on the same bus to work and in the course of their many conversations he told her that his wife was very sick and had been taken to the hospital. In 1954 he told her that his wife had died. Thereafter they went out socially and in 1955 he proposed marriage. They became engaged and on July 30, 1955 they were married. Following the marriage ceremony there was a wedding reception and a honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Upon returning from their honeymoon they went to live in the plaintiff's apartment at 722 Devon Street, Kearny. But on the very first night of their return the defendant told the plaintiff that he had to visit his grandchildren who were living with Aunt Jean at 166 Magnolia Avenue, Kearny. He did not come home at all that night, and though the stated reasons varied, he stayed away many subsequent nights. The plaintiff finally discovered that the defendant's wife was alive and that the defendant was spending most of his time with her

rather than with the plaintiff. She immediately caused his arrest, he pleaded guilty to the charge of bigamy, and he received a suspended prison sentence.

Beginning in 1955 and continuing until his arrest in 1956 the defendant received various sums of money from the plaintiff. According to her testimony they totalled $6,442 and were obtained by false and fraudulent representations as to their intended use. The defendant admitted receiving moneys which he said amounted to $4,600. On cross-examination he admitted that he maintained no records and might have forgotten some of the sums paid to him by the plaintiff. He did not deny the fraudulent representations as to the intended use of the moneys; they included false statements that the money was needed for a Canadian business venture, medical bills, a nephew's tuition, etc. He asserted, however, that some of the moneys went to purchase a diamond engagement ring for the plaintiff, to defray the cost of the wedding reception, and to pay for minor improvements on a house owned by the plaintiff.

In June 1956 the plaintiff filed her complaint in the Law Division, Hudson County, seeking damages from the defendant. In the first count she sought compensatory and punitive damages for the shame, humiliation, and mental anguish which had been caused by the defendant's action in fraudulently inducing her to enter into a marriage which he knew would be bigamous. See Prosser, Torts (2 d ed. 1955), 521. In the second count she sought compensatory and punitive damages for having been fraudulently induced to advance moneys to the defendant. In her third count she made an additional claim for the services rendered by her to the defendant "in connection with maintaining a home for him and furnishing him with meals." In a counterclaim the defendant sought recovery of the sums paid by him for the engagement and wedding rings, for the wedding reception, and for the minor improvements on the plaintiff's house. After trial, the jury denied recovery on the counterclaim and on the third count of the complaint but awarded damages to the plaintiff in the sum of $1,500 compensatory and $1,000

punitive on the first count, and $6,400 compensatory and $600 punitive on the second count. The defendant moved for a new trial but his motion was denied. Thereafter he appealed, contending (1) that the plaintiff's action was barred by the so-called "Heart Balm Act" which, inter alia, abolishes the action to recover damages for breach of contract to marry (N.J.S. 2 A:23-1); (2) that in the alternative, plaintiff's first count which sought recovery for shame, humiliation, and mental anguish should have been dismissed; and (3) that the verdict of the jury on the second count was "contrary to the greater weight of the credible evidence and the result of mistake, passion or prejudice."

In his first and main point, the defendant takes the position that the plaintiff's cause of action necessarily "alleges a breach of a valid contract to marry" and is therefore barred in its entirety by N.J.S. 2 A:23-1 no matter how wrongful was his conduct; in his own language he "not only admits the fraud, but relies on it." The result he seeks would be shockingly unfair to the plaintiff and would discredit the administration of justice. It is not compelled by any fixed legal principle or statutory provision. See Glazer v. Klughaupt, 116 N.J.L. 507 (E. & A. 1936); Grobart v. Grobart, 5 N.J. 161 (1950); Beberman v. Segal, 6 N.J. Super. 472 (Law. Div. 1949). Cf. Blackman v. Iles, 4 N.J. 82 (1950); Rubenstein v. Lopsevich, 4 N.J. 282 (1950); Magierowski v. Buckley, 39 N.J. Super. 534 (App. Div. 1956).

Beginning with Indiana in 1935, many states enacted statutes designed to eliminate or restrict actions for breach of promise (along with actions for alienation of affections, seduction, and criminal conversation which we need not deal with here). There had been widespread public attacks on such actions as fruitful sources of blackmail. And many thoughtful persons had come to view them as unwholesome proceedings which oftentimes entailed extortions or coerced marriages. New Jersey's enactment was adopted in June 1935 (L. 1935, c. 279 -- now N.J.S. 2 A:23-1 et seq.). It abolished the right of action theretofore existing to recover damages for "breach of contract to marry" and stipulated that no contract

to marry thereafter made in New Jersey shall give rise "to any cause or right of action for the breach thereof." Its preamble clearly evidenced the ...


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